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Chechen Rebel Blamed in U.S. Journalist's Death

June 17, 2005|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — A Chechen separatist leader ordered the contract killing in Moscow last year of prominent U.S. investigative journalist Paul Klebnikov, Russian prosecutors said Thursday, a charge that drew immediate skepticism from analysts.

The Russian prosecutor general's office said its investigation concluded that Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev, a onetime deputy prime minister of Russia's southern republic of Chechnya, ordered the killing. He and two other suspects were being sought in the case, it said. Two more are in custody.

"Nukhayev offered payment to members of a criminal group for killing Klebnikov, as the journalist negatively referred to Nukhayev and criticized his remarks in his book titled 'Conversations With a Barbarian,' " the prosecutors' office said in a statement carried by the Russian news agency Interfax.

However, analysts quickly questioned whether the Chechen was involved in the attack on Klebnikov, editor of Forbes magazine's newly launched Russian edition at the time of his slaying.

"Some mass-media sources assert that Nukhayev has a dark criminal past. This, of course, together with him being a Chechen, provides the prosecutors with a seemingly convenient theory," said Alexei Mukhin, director of the Center for Political Information, a Moscow think tank. "But I think they will have a very hard time proving this."

Mukhin added that the book "gave Nukhayev so much publicity that he should be grateful to Klebnikov for providing this free political promotion rather than conspiring to kill him."

Klebnikov was gunned down on a Moscow street after he left work July 9, 2004. At the time, many observers thought the attack might have been related to his critical reporting on wealthy Russians, although some also mentioned the possibility that it was linked to his 2003 book about Nukhayev.

The book, based on interviews with the Chechen, was critical of its subject as well as Islamic extremism.

Nukhayev was part of Chechnya's pro-independence government before a separatist war that lasted from 1994 to 1996. Chechens exercised self-rule in their Caucasus republic after defeating Russian troops. But Russian forces returned in 1999 and have been battling separatist rebels ever since.

Nukhayev was living in the Middle East state of Qatar two years ago but reportedly returned to Russia in late 2003 to help channel weapons to Chechen guerrillas. His whereabouts are unclear, although the prosecutors' statement described him as a resident of Chechnya.

The four other men accused in the case are suspected of being the gunmen and their accomplices. They were part of a Moscow criminal group formed in 2002 that specialized in extortion and contract killings, the prosecutors' statement said.

Members of the group have been accused of killing Yan Sergunin, a former pro-Moscow Chechen deputy prime minister, in Moscow last year, the prosecutors said.

"The murder of Klebnikov raised a lot of questions, including some pretty uncomfortable questions for the authorities, and I can understand why the prosecutors were in such a hurry to declare that they solved this murder," said Andrei Kortunov, president of the Moscow-based New Eurasia Foundation. "I can also understand that the Chechen-involvement theory may seem the most convenient for the prosecution."

Kortunov said he found it difficult to believe, however, that Klebnikov had been killed over a book, even one so critical of its subject.

"In our country, so much is written on a daily basis about 'Chechen mafia' and 'Chechen terrorists' -- and in such a no-holds-barred light -- that if the characters of these publications were so touchy about what's written about them and so vengeful, scores of journalists would be dead already," he said. "But they are not."

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.

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